Nathaneal Wales, Civil Engineer

What do you do for a living?Nathaneal Wales

I am a water resources engineer, a registered civil engineer, for the state of California department of water resources. I have been working for the department for the past four-and-a-half years in a full-time professional position. 

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

I was born in Wisconsin, in Madison, in 1977, and my family lived in Wisconsin until I was nine years old when we moved to California. I was born blind and I had very limited vision as a young child and over the years it deteriorated substantially until I was about 12 or 13 years old when it stabilized. At that time I had enough vision only to read very, very large print and using CCTV and I traveled with a cane and received support services at that point out of California.

I think the first time I ever really started using accommodations for my blindness was when I was in the third grade or fourth grade using CCTV, and I received limited exposure to Braille but because there was a tremendous bias among my teachers and my parents and mostly myself wanting to be as normal as possible, I continued to use as much of the vision as I had in school. And I was able to do so successfully, at least it seemed. I got very grades particularly in math and science. So it seemed that what I was doing was workable. I didn't try to use other techniques because I didn't believe that I needed to. Regardless of whatever techniques I used as a blind child growing up, my parents always had very high expectations of me and expected me to succeed in school and go to college and pursue a career. 

When did you first develop an interest in engineering?

Ever since I was a young child I enjoyed building things, playing with Legos and train sets and always had a real interest in that, also a real interest in NASA and the space program as well. I continued through schools and really enjoyed science classes and I started thinking about going to college and what I would do when I grow up. I knew probably since I was 10 or 12 years old that I wanted to be one of the people who designed and planned and built large infrastructure, highways, roads, bridges, transit systems, dams, reservoirs, buildings, planned cities. As I explored the people who did that, I learned that was civil engineering and so I planned to major in that in college and took the classes in high school to prepare me for that: advanced placement physics, chemistry, accelerated math through calculus. 

When did you really decide that you needed to learn more about alternative techniques?

Something fortunate happened in high school. My parents and the school district teacher for the blind always wanted to make sure that I had the best technology and the best resources, and one of the resources that we found was the National Federation of the Blind. I went to a national convention. I met blind college students talking about college. There were other parents talking about how they raised their children and how they dealt with the school districts. And then blind people who were working in all kinds of interesting careers. (One) of the first blind people I remember meeting when I was a junior or senior in high school was a physicist. He had worked his whole life as a blind person in math and science so I wanted to talk to him and know, "Well, how did you do it and what advice can you give me?"  I met other engineers and scientists who were all members of a science division in the NFB.   So I began networking with these people, these mentors, to find out how they did things. One of the most important things I learned is that all of them, to some extent, used Braille and a lot of other people in the organization used Braille too. Even going to some of the meetings, there would be materials, agendas and programs, and I couldn't read that material in print without a CCTV. But there were people who were reading Braille and could read that material, and I realized that there would be a lot of good uses for Braille. I could use it to read my Bible in church or to take notes in class or meetings, and I figured that if Braille would be useful for those small things and it was useful to every blind person who was successful in math and science, I figured I ought to learn it, so I asked my school district to teach it to me, and they did. They didn't really know whether or not I needed it but it didn't seem like a big deal to them. So a couple days a week my senior year in high school, they started teaching me Braille. 

What did you do to prepare for your college career?

Before I went off to college I also took the advice of some of those people I'd met and went and got some intensive adjustment to blindness training. Where I was able to finish learning Braille, where I was able to learn how to live out on my own away from my parents because I had decided to go to a university several hundred miles away from home, where I learned how to use computers that didn't just have large print but also has speech output. One of the great things that I did in that program was that I took a college course at the local university, Louisiana Tech University, which itself has a pretty respectable engineering department. I took a math course there. I didn't take the math course to learn math. They actually looked at my math scores and said, "You're far overqualified for this course." What I wanted to know was how was I, as a blind person, going to take notes in class without having an aide from the school district or without having a closed circuit television in each lecture hall. How would I read math books without having to depend on a closed circuit television, might there be another alternative technique? And how was I going to read math and science Braille, which I was learning at the time. So in a lot of ways it was an opportunity to experiment and use different ways of doing things as a blind person. So I ended up taking two quarters out of my freshman year at university to do that. I think the investment was well worth it. That was a great experience and I learned how to do many things differently from how I had done growing up. 

What was your college experience?

I started in the spring of 1997 at the University of California at Davis in their civil and environmental engineering department and started taking the lower division prerequisite calculus and physics courses. The following year I took chemistry and some of the more specific engineering courses and really discovered that a lot of the techniques I had learned at that residential adjustment to blindness training program really came in very, very useful and were in a lot of ways much more effective. It was far more effective to be able to take notes in Braille in the classroom rather than being dependent on a large piece of equipment and I learned how to use readers to read technical material that wasn't available in Braille. I learned how to use screen-reading programs on the computer to access software such as Microsoft Excel for writing lab reports. The biggest thing that I had done was I entirely changed the way I accessed my work, switching completely from print to Braille. 

While I was in college, not only did I go to a lot of classes and learn how to work with other people in teams and use readers, but I also participated in an engineering project through our student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers participated in and that was our concrete canoe project. We designed and built a canoe out of special reinforced concrete. And we would test the concrete to see if it would float and how it would hold up under the stress and strain of people inside it paddling. We built it and tested it and make sure it would float. And we would take it to regional competitions and we actually made it to the national competition. That was a great experience because everyone on the team had a specific task to accomplish. That translated very well into the work I did, first in a paid student internship and then into my professional career. In the work that I do we work in teams and each person has specific tasks, so it was great preparation. Knowing my strengths and weaknesses and knowing and appreciating the strengths and weaknesses of others was invaluable, knowing when I could volunteer to do something and knowing when to ask for help.

How did you deal with people who had safety concerns regarding your participation in the science labs?

No one ever really raised a safety issue in my labs. I was expected to follow all of the same safety procedures, such as wearing safety glasses, as everyone else did. So in some ways I was lucky to not ever be in a position to have to deal with professors that had safety concerns.

What advice would you have for blind students who are interested in having a career in engineering?

The first and best thing that you can do is to network with other blind people, to network with other blind students, to find blind people who are successful in the careers so that you can take their advice on how to succeed as a blind person. So the first and best thing is to find people who can mentor you. The next thing you can do is to have high expectations of yourself and not to lower them, not to become passive, and to not take the initiative because it's easier or more fun, to always push yourself to always hold yourself to high expectations and to recognize when you don't achieve those expectations and learn from the experience of failing to learn what you can do better.